Elmore Leonard was a famous novelist and one of the unique writing voices of the last 50 years in America. He rose from pulp magazines to best seller lists, and one aspect of his that was often cited for this was his authentic voice.
My favorite quote on writing from him is this: “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”
That should be your mantra as you write anything: web copy for your startup, a script for a TV spot, an article, your memoir.
It seems to me that English and writing teachers across the country have done their students a great disservice by teaching “writing.” “Writing” is that serious and studied task of using big words to form long and winding sentences. “Writing” is trying to mimic your favorite authors while sounding smart.
Unfortunately, how “writing” is taught is why so many people think they can’t write.
Writing shouldn’t be that hard. If you can talk, you can write. And if you can write like you talk, you are a capable writer. Online, good writing is conversational. That applies to news articles, commentary and analysis, blogs and especially marketing sites.
(Unless, of course, you are incapable of speaking coherently.)
Think about the friends whose Facebook posts or tweets you like to read. I guarantee you can easily follow along with what they are saying and rarely get distracted with how they are saying it.
Here is a short list of do’s and don’ts, things I’ve learned about writing. I learned a lot of these lessons the hard way, and have had the good fortune of mentors and editors who’ve corrected me.
You’ll notice that many of these are not so much writing tips, but more tips for thinking about writing. I believe that good writing comes from a place of confidence and comfort, so many of my tips are about getting to that place.
Do start with a plan
The first thing I do when writing for the web - be it a website, landing page, email or blog post - is create an outline. Nothing makes me feel more confident than having a plan.
The act of writing is funny, you get turned down roads you weren’t expecting and get lost in your thoughts. All of a sudden, you’ll forget what point you were trying to make and have no idea how to get to it. An outline keeps your feet on the path.
RELATED: How one copywriter writes
Don’t talk to everyone
With your outline ready, when you sit down to write, narrow your audience to one person. As I've mentioned in another post, just picture one person who fits in your target audience, and try to have a one-sided conversation with that person. Decide what it is about your product that that person needs to know, and talk to that one person about those selling points.
I will literally play a conversation in my head with this one person, and write down each sentence that I think is worthy.
Don’t try to sound smart
You get no points for using big words. Even if your product is in a technical space like health-care or enterprise software, it’s much more important to communicate your idea than to communicate your grasp of language.
It’s important that you know how your target audience speaks, and use that vocabulary. There is a limit to that way of writing though. Jargon and buzzwords are like inside jokes - they separate those who are in the know from those who aren’t. The goal of most marketing is to be inclusive as possible.
Whenever I am writing about a subject matter that has a lot of jargon, I try to avoid the jargon. I write in a way that someone who knows very little about the subject matter can understand. That way, I know that the copy will be easy for everyone to understand.
RELATED: How do you talk like a brand? Or how does a brand talk like us?
Those buzzwords and phrases may not apply industry wide, either. They could be local to one market or even to one company.
There’s also the fact that jargon and buzzwords set off many peoples’ BS detectors.
Do build credibility
Speaking of BS detectors, as a writer you always have to keep in mind what your target will believe. If you describe your product in a way that seems like an over-promise, your user won’t trust you.
I call this overacting, and you see it all the time online. Online, you’ll encounter an even higher level of skepticism because your user knows that any idiot can post anything. If you’re too grandiose with the claims you’re making about your product - describing it as life-changing or once-in-a-lifetime - you’ll come across as spammy.
You want to build trust through your writing. That involves knowing what your user is looking for. You can assume that because she is on your website, she wants to know more about your product or service. That’s why it is so important to be informative and provide real value to her, and you will not do that by screaming, "Look at how great this is!"
In fact, I take a hard look at every time I decide to use adjectives and adverbs to describe my product. For each instance, I want to make sure they are being used to provide greater understanding and a better description. If they are being used to push a sale, I eliminate them.
And never, ever use an exclamation point. Your user graduated from high school, I assume, so you shouldn't punctuate like a high schooler.
Do build momentum
While I’m writing my first draft, I don’t worry about spelling errors and typos. It’s much more important at this stage in the game to get my thoughts down. As I further refine my thinking and my writing, I can correct mistakes as well. Besides, that's why you have friends and team members who can proofread.
Don’t go for the joke
It's hard to do humor, and it's easy to do humor wrong. In writing, you don’t get a chance to act out the joke and highlight the punchline. It's better if you can communicate clearly than be laugh out loud funny but unclear.
Do write confidently
In your writing, don’t undersell your expertise. You don’t want to hedge a statement you’re making by saying things like, “For the most part, you will find this leads to less time dealing with spam emails.”
If you’re going to say something, say it with conviction: “Stop dealing with spam emails.”
Added bonus, this usually means that you’re copy is shorter and more effective, as well.